The lie has become so ingrained in our culture that we accept it without question. Today, I question it, its validity and its basis. Just because it has become our national motto doesn’t make it right.

This is the lie we tell ourselves and our children:

“If you want it bad enough and try hard enough, you can achieve anything. If you don’t achieve it, it’s because you gave up, didn’t try hard enough. Not achieving your dreams makes you a failure.”

That is not true.

We cannot achieve anything because we want it. Trying terribly hard can take you only so far. The rest of the distance requires actual ability in that field of endeavor, talent to make a dream come true.

You can’t be a blind artist. You can’t be a tone-deaf musician. You can’t write when you’ve no gift for words. You can’t be physicist if you find mathematics incomprehensible. You can’t be a carpenter or an engineer if you cannot visualize in three-dimensions. You can’t take pictures if you don’t see them in your mind’s eye. That’s not defeatism. It’s reality.

I don’t know when being a pragmatist became synonymous with defeatism. It infuriates me when someone tells me I shouldn’t give up on a dream because if I keep trying, I will succeed.

No, I won’t. It isn’t going to happen. It was never possible. I know what I can do. I know what I can’t do. Being told that I should never give up my dreams makes me want to whack the speaker of this un-wisdom upside the head.

I’m in favor of dreams as long as you know the difference between a dream and an expectation. I’m in favor of knowing who you are, evaluating your talents, recognizing your abilities. Everyone has dreams. Everyone has gifts. Sometimes the two coincide so that you can ride your dreams into a golden future. This outcome is not in everyone’s cards.

I wanted to be a musician. It wasn’t an outlandish dream. I had started piano when I was only four. I continued with it all through my school years and was in college, just one credit shy of completing my B.A. in Music when a professor took me aside for a chat.

He said: “You do well in your courses. You get As in everything, so there’s no problem with grades. Except I see you. Your heart isn’t in it, not the way it needs to be. Music requires total commitment. Maybe you would be happier doing something else. Keep music as a hobby. Do something you’re really good at, really passionate about. Being a second-rate musician won’t make you happy.”

Piano lessons

I was mortified. Crushed. I played pretty well. I suffered from terminal stage fright, but I had a good ear and I loved music. I still do. Yet when I gave it serious thought, I knew the truth. I would never fully commit to music. It was not the right path for me.

My real talent lay in words. I could write as soon as I could read. It was as natural to me as breathing and I never even thought of it as a gift because it was so easy. I just figured anyone could do it. I had to do some major rethinking and revise my self-image. It was painful and difficult. I never gave up playing the piano, but it stopped being my professional goal. As a bonus, when I stopped trying to become a professional musician, I began to enjoy music more.

I refocused my energy on writing and immediately, life turned around. I stopped plodding and began to fly. I never took a writing class. I just started working as a professional writer from my first job after college and never did anything else professionally for the next 40 years.

If Dr. Deutsch (thank you, Herb, you really gave me a push in the right direction) had not sat me down and told me the truth as he saw it, I’d probably have continued down a road that would have led me nowhere I really wanted to go. He didn’t buy the lie and refused to let me buy it.

No one can create talent. That’s why talents are called gifts. You get them free of charge along with the breath of life. Yet we keep hearing that lie — try hard and you can make it happen. We waste years trying to achieve the impossible while dismissing the achievable. We neglect real gifts in favor of magical thinking. What a waste!

Dreams are not the goal. Creating a good and satisfying career and life should be the goal. We all need to take stock of ourselves, look hard at what we do well, focus on our strengths, hone our talents, and plan a future that works.

The freedom you gain when you stop trying to do the impossible and put your whole heart into using your abilities is inestimable. You stop feeling like a failure. You get to love your work. You can dump the dead weight of dreams as well as the guilt and frustration of not fulfilling them. Just because you can’t be a ballerina doesn’t make you a failure. Being a lousy dancer when you could have been a great something else IS a failure  … a lose-lose for you and society.

Distinguishing dreams from reality is a winning strategy. Like it or not, we live in the real world. Dreams are not real.

Don’t buy the lie.

Categories: Ethics and Philosophy, Life, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

25 replies

  1. I realised that early enough I think. But I couldn’t put it so well in words – for years now I tell myself ‘You are enough, just as you are – you don’t have to be Einstein’s mentor’…. I have made my peace being a ‘filler’ in choirs, playing my voice in orchestras, being in the 2nd, 3rd line of anything fancy – I’m happy that way.


  2. this is so spot on! thank you Marilyn! I loved what you wrote here, and its all so true 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was eloquently said. And true. You’re lucky indeed if your dream and talent coincide. I watch so many with the desire (but not the ability) to sing and others with the ability (but never receive the opportunity) to make it in the big leagues as they so desire. In truth, if you are passionate about something, it does take over and you can fly. It may not be the big leagues as some wish for, but it is in truth, completely and absolutely fulfilling which makes life worthwhile!


    • For which there are hobbies and part-time gigs. Blogs and painting for the joy of it. Singing for the beauty of the music. Not everything needs to be “it.”

      We do the best we can with what we have and life offers us, but too many people ignore real abilities to run after shadows. It’s good to dream. It’s also good to recognize when the dream won’t happen.


  4. It also takes a certain amount of luck to make it big time. I’m not sure we would really want that life style either if we did attain it. Much to think about in your post Marilyn.


    • That’s that other thing that you can’t measure. You can be good at whatever it is. You can be brilliant. And still might not get a hanging for your pictures, a release of your music, a concert, or publishing. That tiny final little piece is pure luck — meeting that right person at a party or in a classroom or on the line at the store. It also doesn’t hurt to come from a family with connections!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my GOD Marilyn! You have no idea how much this meant to me. You have put into words exactly what I feel, and what I struggle with. You are SO RIGHT.

    I am not going to go into the gifts and talents thing, though what you say is so VERY true. But so so many people have said to me that I can do anything I want to, and that I can achieve my dreams. It has got to me. It happens in here, on WP. And I see red. Mi want to bute back, but I don’t. I get SO angry.

    I am blind. I am unable to walk, so in a wheelchair. I have no feeling in my hands and feet. I am in pain. I have poir lungs and geart. All from having suffered advanced and widespread cancer. I have limitations. I have had to accept thos and learn to live with them. I will never go to Venice, or the Great Wall of China. I will prrhaps never go shopping again, though I tried to the other day. But people constantly say to me to be positive and then it will happen. It WON’T. I do what I can. I use what I have got left. I try to post poems about my state, and they are not miserable ones. But ALWAYS there is this knee jerk reaction. Here I am. Trying to come to terms with my changed state in life, and here is everyone else trying to shift me into a dream that can never come true. I guess it makes them feel better!

    So yes, we have to live with the truth – and that means the truth about ohrselves. I may Reblog this, with your permission Marilyn. It contains a very important message. Oh, and I was never going to be a mathematician lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are welcome to reblog it. MOST important if for people to stop feeling shamed by what they are unable to do. To be told “we can do anything” is cruel.

      Liked by 1 person

    • But you are incredibly brave, courageous and you do everything you can. You can’t do more than that! Best wishes to you – I find many people who are blind or near blind, see much better and clearer than others with a perfect 20/20 eyesight!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh kiki, thankyou so very much. I try to be brave. Thankyou for seeing that blind people can often have a different kind of sight than phtsically sighted people.

        Liked by 1 person

        • My mum sees (if you can call that seeing) about 4% – but let me assure you: Nothing escapes her. She is amazing!
          I have very bad and worsening eyesight too. Not yet as bad as hers but getting there. In discussions with her on the phone I realise often: I have a lot of knowledge. That can be acquired by reading, learning, listening, experiences. My mother has all that but she also has a LOT of wisdom. THAT comes from experience, listening to your heart, having a softer heart than your head is, and finally, staying authentic to yourself. And thus, she sees so incredibly well with her bad, bad eyes and very very good heart!

          Liked by 1 person

          • It is exactly that way for me kiki. I inly went blind recently, so it is hard to kearn things and adjust. Did I say I am also in a wheelchair with no feeling in my hands, feet, and legs? Also cinstant bad pain. Also lungs that do not work very well, so I have breathing oriblems a LOT. Also bowels that work when they want to, so going out us a nightmare. But I try my best. I have cancer. Serioysly, I struggle. But you know, I do well. Very very well. But I agree ytterly with what Narilyn has written. I get fed up with peopke saying that you can have whatever you want uf you jyst try hard enough. It isn’t true. Not at all. Not for everyone. I am so fatigued from the cancer that I cannot keave the hoyse for ling, so I would never achueve my dream of going to Venuce, forninstance. Even going to church is now impossible for me, we HAVE to accept our situation as it us, otherwuse we would be very very unhappy. Other people need to accept US for what we are.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Few people have the guts to say it or hear it. Knowing our own strength and limitations is the way to understand our true potential.



  2. IN THE SPIRIT OF DOING WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING … Marilyn Armstrong | Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth

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